Shells of Our City: Swift and Company Packing Plant

There are no public tours of the abandoned Swift and Company meatpacking plant. The ruins sit east of the bustling Fort Worth Stockyards, behind tall chain link fences and more than a few "No Trespassing" signs. A kindly security guard, Hugh Gibson, sits at the entrance to the neighboring Armour plant, still accessible from Niles City Blvd. He peers out from under his straw cowboy hat on a Saturday morning to answer questions from passersby. His jurisdiction, he says, is the Armour plant. As for the property beyond it, he says, he is to alert the main Fort Worth Stockyards security if he sees anyone snooping around unannounced.

Some folks have obviously made it in. The Swift and Company plant's ruins are covered in graffiti with the word LOVE tagged in white near the top of the main structure. Photographers from around the state attracted to the building marvel at how perfectly "bombed-out" it looks and wonder in the captions on their Flickr sites what will become of the remains. The TV series "Prison Break" built a Panama prison set on the property and filmed there, but Hollywood has left, too.

The stubbornness that cemented Fort Worth as a king of cattle commerce is entombed in the singed remains of the meatpacking plant small investors helped secure in good faith at the turn of the twentieth century. After the empty plant was ravaged by two fires in the '70s, demolition trucks have come to knock down what's left. But the wrecking balls only took a chunk of the relic. Swift's steel-strong design makes it more expensive to demolish the proud main structure than to let it occupy the land, so it stays, looming over the historic entertainment district as it has since the fires came.

"See old Swift, when he built it, he built it better than any bank you've ever seen," says Steve Murrin, who owns the River Ranch property nearby. The place used to be known as a barn party space; well before that, it was the boneyard for the Swift plant.

Murrin, a former Fort Worth city councilman, says his father and grandfather were among the Fort Worth businessmen who pitched in and bought the land and donated it, half to the Swift company and half to Armour, strictly for enterprise. Then Swift partnered with the owner of Fort Worth Union Stockyards, a moneyed Yankee named Greenlief W. Simpson, to open the Swift and Company plant in March of 1904. Historian J'Nell L. Pate wrote that the recruitment of the Swift and Armour plants “saved the stockyards from failure” as the institution limped along after the financial panic in the late 1800s. The city's population tripled during the ten years after Armour and Swift arrived in what was then called North Fort Worth.

Besides the ready selection of cattle available at the adjacent stockyards, the Swift plant was elite in that time because of its modern design, Murrin says. Gustavus Swift, the founder of Swift and Company, invented the refrigerated railcar, and his highly insulated plants were advanced as compared to other facilities. Double brick walls on the upper floors of the packing house ensured the meat would stay fresh throughout the first steps of processing.

The operation was organized top-to-bottom: the slaughterhouse part of the plant was on the fourth floor. Cattle were led up an outside ramp to meet their demise.

"They went in as cows and came out as packaged meat at the bottom," Murrin says.

Long treks between Texas ranches and Fort Worth coupled with the boom of the trucking industry and the rising preference of the consumer for special cuts of beef caused a drop in demand for Swift's factory-style operation. Murrin likens Swift and Company's style of processing and packing to the old Ford quip that a customer can have a car painted in any color he wants, as long as it's black. Take it or leave it, the meat was cut and packaged with efficiency being the main concern.

The plant held on longer than the Armour plant, which closed in 1962. The Swift Fort Worth plant shut down in 1971. Two fires in the next few years would ravage the plant, save the administrative offices. XTO owns the admin offices across the street -- the building stands out for it's wraparound porch.

According to the Tarrant Appraisal District's records, Hickman Investments, Inc. owns the property on which the Swift ruins lie. That company is owned by developer and investor Holt Hickman, who owns many high-dollar commercial and residential properties in Fort Worth. A representative from the company did not return calls at press time.

During the year he's worked in the Armour security post, Gibson says he hasn't met anyone with direct ties to the plant except for an elderly man who used to work at Swift. Gibson says he once found a brick with the date July 7, 1907 written on it. And there was something else – about a year ago, he came to work and saw a fire burning in the center of the Swift property. It seemed to have started down in a hole. It took firefighters almost all day to take care of the blaze.

What else would fit on the hill where the Swift ruins now stand? Murrin says there's been talk of cheap apartments before. That would have been horrible, he says. Murrin is a preservationist, but so is Hickman, an Exchange Club Golden Deeds Award winner and a Stockyards mainstay. No one we spoke to could say how much longer the remains of the Swift and Company plant would dangle at the edge of the Stockyards, but for now, what's left will continue to invite questions from visitors.

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